Acts of the Apostles 9:1–31; 22:1–21; 26:1–18

The Road To Damascus

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Conversion of Saul, 1601, Oil on canvas, 230 x 175 cm, Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome; Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Italy / Bridgeman Images

Conversion Laid Bare

Commentary by Natasha O’Hear

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This is Caravaggio’s second major attempt at visualizing the vision of Saul (soon to be Paul). His first version of 1600/01 (now in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome) is a dark and overcrowded composition, in which a partially naked Saul cowers and covers his face in reaction to the ‘divine ambush’ he is experiencing.

In this later painting the mood is quite different. This is a pared down, contemplative meditation on the visionary experience. Gone is the crowded drama of most contemporary versions of the subject matter and in their place is a young and ordinary Saul consumed by his vision.

There are just two other figures in this composition: the horse and the groom. The white charger of Renaissance tradition has been replaced by a more humble piebald horse. Horse and groom seem oblivious to Saul’s vision, rather than terrified, as was generally the case in contemporary versions, which more closely mirror the Acts accounts (with their statements that the companions either saw (Acts 22) or heard the vision (Acts 9) or fell to the ground (see Acts 26:14)). Caravaggio’s Saul lies on his back, facing away from the viewer. The floor is angled in a way that is analogous to a raked stage so that Saul tilts down towards us, his face partially visible. His splayed legs and dislodged helmet hint at the sudden and forceful nature of the divine encounter while Saul’s arms, held aloft in a cruciform pose may imply an informed acceptance of the experience.

Crucially, Caravaggio has not included Christ in the composition, merely hinting at his presence via the artificial light source shining directly onto Saul. This might be seen as an amazingly ‘modern’ representation of the conversion in its suggestion that a vision is a psychological episode rather than a physically observable irruption in the external world. But Caravaggio would also have been aware of mystical traditions that acknowledge that God’s power and presence cannot be reduced to worldly phenomena, and exceed what can be represented in either verbal or visible formulae. Union with God comes by way of purgation. Illumination comes after a necessary stripping back.

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Conversion of Saul, c.1542–5, Fresco, 625 x 661 cm, Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace, Vatican City; Heritage Images / Fine Art Images / akg-images

‘The Least of the Apostles’

Commentary by Natasha O’Hear

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Michelangelo Buonarroti’s monumental fresco of Saul’s conversion (after which he uses the new name Paul), has often been maligned by art historians (see Steinberg 1975: 17–21, 32–37). The artist takes many of the medieval tradition’s established visual motifs, but then exaggerates and subverts them, before weaving them together in his own original composition.

Yet the fresco is in many ways an apposite rendering of the Acts conversion texts (Acts 9:1–19; 22:6–21; 26:12–18). Michelangelo successfully captures both the narrative energy of the Acts accounts, and the confusion they convey.

The medieval tradition generally presented Christ in bust form in a neat mandorla or cloud-like enclosure at the top of the scene. Here, by contrast, we see a dynamic, naturalistic Christ breaking through into the earthly realm, both bathed in and emanating heavenly light (see Acts 26:13: the light is ‘more blinding than the sun’). In a further break with earlier visual tradition, Christ is surrounded by a heavenly host of around thirty figures. They provide a compositional balance to the twenty-three travelling companions scattered below. The companions encompass all the reactions described in the three Acts accounts (hearing, being blinded by the light, falling).

The figure in the centre of the fresco grapples with Saul’s runaway horse, whereas prior visualizations had shown Saul in the very moment of being unhorsed. Saul himself lies prostrate and humbled in the centre foreground, literally the ‘lowest’ figure in the scene. He is an aged Saul (he was actually around thirty at the conversion) and has Michelangelo’s features. Michelangelo may be reflecting on his own humbled state in his later years, whereby he eschewed his former pride in his art in favour of a longing for divine regeneration through grace (Steinberg 1975: 39; Corley 1997: 8).

Saul’s closed eyes may suggest that he is spiritually elsewhere (with Christ?), and his vulnerable, stationary pose signals that he is subsumed by the experience. Thus, Michelangelo contrasts Saul’s calm moment of ‘ultimate revelation’ with the chaotic and uncomprehending reaction of the companions.



Corley, Bruce. 1997. ‘Interpreting Paul’s Conversion-Then and Now’, in The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul's Conversion on His Life, Thought, and Ministry, ed. by Richard Longnecker (Eerdmans), pp. 1–17

Steinberg, Leo. 1975. Michelangelo’s Last Paintings: The Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace (Oxford: OUP)


William Blake

The Conversion of Saul, c.1800, Pen and watercolour on wove paper, 423 x 371 mm, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens; 000.29, © The Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens / Bridgeman Images

A Visionary Awakening

Commentary by Natasha O’Hear

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William Blake’s Conversion of Saul is part of the artist's biblical watercolour series, produced between 1800–05 for his loyal patron, Thomas Butts. While it is difficult to discern an overall programme to the series, in his New Testament images Blake explores themes of divinity and spiritual illumination, as well as different attitudes towards discipleship (which he presents in terms of ‘ideal’ and ‘deficient’ responses to Jesus/Christ). It is helpful to consider this watercolour within the context of this series and these themes.

Interestingly, Blake includes some medieval motifs in his composition. Thus Saul sits atop a magnificent yet prostrate white horse. Yet in a nod to the Renaissance iconography (cf. the Michelangelo version), a flying Christ dominates the top half of the composition. He is bathed in light and surrounded either by a heavenly host, or perhaps by the souls of those whom Saul was persecuting (see Acts 26:9–11). Christ appears to be pointing Saul in the direction of Damascus. His robes almost touch Saul, suggesting a mingling of the human and the divine that was for Blake the ultimate aim of discipleship (Billingsley 2018: 127–31).

Saul himself is young, muscular, and attired in the Roman style (cf. Caravaggio’s depiction). He too has spread his arms in what may be a simple sign of total acceptance of his mission, or more symbolically a cruciform gesture (an acknowledgement of the consequences of that acceptance). Blake believed that anyone could share in the ‘Human Form Divine’ (in short, Christ), so long as they altered their way of perceiving the world (Billingsley 2018: 11–13).

Thus here we see the moment at which, for Blake at least, Saul, a known persecutor of Christians, definitively opened his field of visionary perception. The dark and huddled mass of his travelling companions in the background of the image, only one of whom has turned his head to see the vision, form an important visual counterpoint to the man who, in becoming Paul, is the ‘ideal’ disciple.



Billingsley, Naomi. 2018: The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism, and the Pictorial Imagination (London: IB Tauris)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio :

Conversion of Saul, 1601 , Oil on canvas

Michelangelo Buonarroti :

Conversion of Saul, c.1542–5 , Fresco

William Blake :

The Conversion of Saul, c.1800 , Pen and watercolour on wove paper

A Seismic Moment

Comparative commentary by Natasha O’Hear

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The visual tradition of Paul’s conversion from his earlier life as Saul is rooted in the Acts accounts (Acts 9:1–19; 22:6–21; 26:12–18) but was also influenced by Augustine, the twelfth-century Glossa Ordinaria, and particularly the thirteenth-century Golden Legend. Interestingly, the first-person Pauline accounts of the conversion of Galatians 1:11–17 and 1 Corinthians 9:1, for example, lack much of the narrative detail of the Acts accounts and so have not held much influence over the visual tradition.

Although the conversion unfolds across many verses in the Acts passages, a single visual image is able to bring all (or at least many) of the narrative elements together in one synchronic space. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and William Blake have all attempted to do the fullest justice they can to the author of Luke–Acts preoccupation, bordering on obsession, with the seismic moment at which Saul, a persecutor of Christians, encountered Christ and became the evangelist par excellence. They, and their patrons, recognized the enormous importance of the event in terms of the development of Christianity, an idea that is also forcefully asserted in The Golden Legend’s account of the conversion.

It is worth noting that, despite this common aim, these three artists have used very different media to express the subject matter: Michelangelo created a monumental fresco for one of the most important chapels in Christendom, Caravaggio’s painting is much smaller but was also created for a chapel context, and Blake’s watercolour (much smaller still) was created as part of an extended, yet private, biblical series for his patron Thomas Butts. Yet within these contrasting formats, all three artists have hinted at a phenomenology of religious vision—in other words, what it feels like to have an encounter with God.

Turning first to the nature of Saul’s vision: in at least two of the three images, the role of the companions is key to emphasizing both the personal and unexpected nature of the experience, as well as its great significance. In Michelangelo’s fresco the chaotic reaction of the companions is visually contrasted with Saul’s calmer demeanour. The beam of heavenly light, which is angled directly onto him, also gives us a sense of his having been ‘set apart’, something that Paul himself would emphasize in his Galatians account of his conversion (Galatians 1:15; this idea is also alluded to in Acts 26:16).

Similarly, in the Blake image, the huddled, barely-human companions who appear behind Saul form a visual and symbolic contrast with him. Saul is bathed in light and appears almost ecstatically open to his revelation of Christ. While all of the three Acts accounts emphasize the differing yet uniformly inadequate reactions of the companions, it is in visual form that this contrast can be brought to the fore most evocatively.

Saul’s unquestioning acceptance (and almost immediate execution) of his mission to the Gentiles is reiterated in all three Acts accounts. The cruciform arm gestures of Saul in the works of both Caravaggio and Blake subtly yet powerfully capture this idea. They imply that this is a moment both of ultimate revelation of Christ and of Saul’s mission (although we are given no narrative detail regarding what exactly is revealed to Saul in his vision), as well as of a deep understanding of the hardship and sacrifice that this mission will entail. Caravaggio’s young and ‘ordinary’ Saul also implies that the state of grace that Saul entered via his vision is (potentially at least) open to all.  

We turn finally to the issue of how these images evoke the nature of the visionary experience for the viewer. Whereas the medieval visual tradition generally presents visionary experiences as having a clear external source (God, Christ, or an angel), two of these three images present the experience as—although still resolutely ‘God-given’—something altogether more internal; psychological even.

Michelangelo’s Saul has his eyes closed and is consumed by the experience. Christ hovers above, as both the source and focus of the experience.

Caravaggio’s Saul is presented as having an entirely internal, possibly mystical experience of Christ. Christ himself is physically absent from the image (save for the ‘heavenly light’ that illuminates the prostrate Saul), pressing us to imagine what is going on in his mind.

And finally, although Blake seems to posit an external source for the vision (Christ), his image is open to being read on two levels. Blake believed that visions were experienced by accessing one’s faculty of ‘imaginative sight’. So, in this image, we the viewer may be witnessing an ‘external rendering’ of a visionary process that for Saul was happening internally. We are made partakers with Saul in his inward and mystical sight.


Next exhibition: Acts of the Apostles 9:32–43 Next exhibition: Acts of the Apostles 27

Acts of the Apostles 9:1–31; 22:1–21; 26:1–18

Revised Standard Version

Acts of the Apostles 9

9 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. 4And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; 6but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananiʹas. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananiʹas.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, 12and he has seen a man named Ananiʹas come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13But Ananiʹas answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17So Ananiʹas departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, 19and took food and was strengthened.

And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21And all who heard him were amazed, and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called on this name? And he has come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests.” 22But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night, to kill him; 25but his disciples took him by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket.

26 And when he had come to Jerusalem he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, 29preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists; but they were seeking to kill him. 30And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesareʹa, and sent him off to Tarsus.

31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samarʹia had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied.

22 “Brethren and fathers, hear the defense which I now make before you.”

2 And when they heard that he addressed them in the Hebrew language, they were the more quiet. And he said:

3 “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Ciliʹcia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaʹli-el, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day. 4I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5as the high priest and the whole council of elders bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brethren, and I journeyed to Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.

6 “As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 8And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ 9Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11And when I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.

12 “And one Ananiʹas, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And in that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15for you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. 16And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get quickly out of Jerusalem, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in thee. 20And when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I also was standing by and approving, and keeping the garments of those who killed him.’ 21And he said to me, ‘Depart; for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”

26 Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense:

2 “I think myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, 3because you are especially familiar with all customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently.

4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and at Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. 6And now I stand here on trial for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?

9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.

12 “Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. 14And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ 15And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you 18to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’